On initially Googling the Temporary School of Thought I came across Dougald Hine's blog which had a roundup of links and reviews of some of the events - and then I discovered he was giving a talk on Third Spaces, Web 2.0 and First Life on Thursday night, 3 Feb 2011, so I went along. I smiled when he said that before he'd start his talk we should all take a moment to soak up the place that we were in, as I'd already been doing precisely that.
A couple of people were video recording Dougald's talk so I daresay it will be available online soon - I didn't take any notes though, just sat and enjoyed. The room was packed; I estimated over 50 people when the talk began and probably nearer 70 by the end, possibly more. This made the room very warm and cosy - and there was even someone having a cigarette (inside!). I'd forgotten what they smell like to be honest.
I wish I could remember more of talks after I've been to them, possibly a mistake not to have made notes which I would usually do.
Dougald talked about the concept of third spaces - a term which originated with Ray Oldenburg to describe places that we meet together in that aren't our homes or workplaces. He mentioned how the phrase had been appropriated by organisations like Starbucks which have been keen to position themselves as a venue where you could get a bit of third space with your coffee and muffin. Apparently the reason why they persist in asking you "would you like a drink with that?" (one of the reasons I try and avoid the place to be honest) is that they have a script to follow and there are mystery shoppers who'll check that they're doing it properly. Staff are also expected to initiate conversations with customers, beyond the script. Dougald contrasted this enforced bonhomie with a cafe in Sheffield run by people from the more surly school of customer relations who'll more or less ignore patrons until they get to know them. I think I'd prefer a middle ground of detached civility though.
There was some amusing discussion and audience participation on the nature of social media (interactive / Web 2.0 stuff) tools. Hardly anyone in the room had used Second Life and I'm pretty sure we all agreed that social tools that help us make more of first life are what's wanted. Examples of these include text messages which bring us ambient information about what our chums are up to, similarly Facebook (and Meetup) are used to help people arrange events etc. in the real world. He mentioned that text messages were originally something placed on mobile phones for engineers to communicate with brief messages they became one of the most used features of mobiles generally. I send and receive texts from my mobile far more often than use it as a telephone because I like that these conversations don't have to be synchronous, particularly if I need to be somewhere quiet.
I remember getting what turned out to be my first text message in 1995 and not having the faintest idea how to access the mystery message. It appeared on my Motorola Graphite in the form of a differnt type of small envelope icon, which unfortunatey threw me. I'd worked out that another envelope icon I'd seen on my phone meant I had a voicemail message but I couldn't get this one to play until the friend (coincidentally he worked for a mobile phone company) who'd sent it asked me about it. And even then he had to explain what it was and what keystrokes I'd have to press on the phone to access it (bit of a geek fail there). After that though, it was text messages all the way, and not just for me either.
Some companies had invested in devices which would let you make video calls on your mobile - he wondered if walking down the street having a video conference with a friend was such a great idea as it meant you were less involved with your surroundings. The message here was that people don't necessarily want to be immersed in something - while they're going about their normal life. With Second Life it might appear that plenty of people don't want to be immersed in that either, unless all of the people I know just don't use it. A year or two ago I went along to the Nature offices while they launched their Second Life island, I'd also seen it in use at the Science Online conference the year before last - it seemed to work fairly well for people not attending the conference to follow it online that way. I'd have used a plain old audio or video feed (Twitter feeds also good) in preference to downloading some new bit of software and learning how to use it (and, I understand, having to dress my avatar). So Second Life has passed me by somewhat. I think IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is probably simpler to operate though.
There was also discussion on the ways in which people are creating and using their own third spaces, and using internet tools to develop them. I briefly wondered about the fate of our libraries...
I really haven't done justice to the engaging way in which Dougald spoke with the crowd and encouraged participation, nor have I done much justice to the content of his talk but I really enjoyed his ideas, and the contributions of the audience, and found the event very inspiring - and was just so glad that I'd gone along. It really is a great place.
Just before I left I took a photo (below) of the tiered seating that had been created, and remembered a similar construction back in the cinema room at the Temporary School of Thought. I think at the time I'd just assumed it was somehow part of the house but have learned that these sorts of things are rustled up by people in the squat who have the good sense to have woodworking skills. This one implies that it might have come from what my friend Helen describes as the spiritual home of the meatball - or perhaps someone just wrote IKEA on it (you can just about make it out).
Back at work I mentioned my evening out at the talk to a colleague and told her about the aims of the Really Free School - she asked if I was recapturing my youth. I was a bit taken aback by this as I'd always thought I was still in it; I wonder where that demarcation line went ;)
You might also enjoy these posts:
- Temporary School of Thought - the Mayfair squat 2009
- Nicholas Saunder's Alternative London - activist book from 1974